“Grandpa, we don’t pray in restaurants!”
So declared my daughter to my father, many, many years ago. Our food had arrived, and as was his custom my father said quietly, “Shall we pray?” Three year old Emma’s immediate retort was totally sincere. Her tone was more perplexed than curt. “What in the world is grandpa thinking?” might have been her subtext.
I felt a little amused and a lot embarrassed. But Emma’s declaration was true. We didn’t pray in restaurants. I don’t recall it being a fully deliberate decision, although young Emma had obviously noted the clear distinction.
Our reluctance had something to do with Jesus’s words about not practicing your piety in public—although, as I’ve often reminded my congregation, the admonition against piety in public is not an admonition against piety in general.
At the time we lived in upstate New York. Seeing people pray in restaurants was pretty uncommon there, as I recall. Perhaps that should have provoked me to pray publicly. It might have been the place to do it. Counter-cultural, eccentric, witness, and all that.
Now as a resident of the Midwest, it is very common for me to observe, and sometimes participate in prayers in restaurants. No doubt, many of you know the drill. The food arrives. Someone—magically, we all seem to know who it should be—quietly says “Shall we pray?” Sometimes it is unspoken—a subtle, knowing nod. On cue, everyone sits up a notch, momentarily lifts their face and takes a big breath before lowering their head and closing their eyes. It looks a bit like a child taking a deep breath before trying to swim to the bottom of a swimming pool.
Then, the uncomfortable silence. How long to keep your eyes closed and your head down? What if you come up for air too early, while the others still are in prayer? Is there a prize for the one who stays down the longest?
These are the sorts of sacrilegious questions that too often occupy my mind, rather than actual prayer during these times. And I also observe people in other booths. Man, they are really praying for a long time! And they all finish almost simultaneously. How do they do that?
Sorry that my assessments and questions feel so petty. I feel convicted. At least, somewhat.
But my concerns about showy religion and syrupy piety also remain. I don’t want to be ashamed of my Lord or ashamed of prayer. Both matter enormously to me.
So when I, by mystical rite, am the appointed prayer-starter in a restaurant, I’ve adopted this practice. Trying very hard not to change my posture, or the tone or volume of my voice, I look around the table, trying to make some eye contact with my companions, and I say something like, “We thank, gracious God, for the gift of this food and these people and your presence among us. Nourish us that we may be your glad and willing servants, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” My hope would be that if webcams or people at the next table were watching us, it would look as if our conversation had simply rolled on without stop.
In my context, where practicing your piety in public still feels pretty thick and cloying, this seems like the best solution for me. Thoughts? Reactions? Wisdom?